Cameron Smith was ten years old when he visited the Houston Space Center and stood in awe at the sheer size of a Saturn V rocket. Over the next five years he wrote to every living astronaut and even a few cosmonauts, asking how to go to space. As an adult, Smith spent years organizing adventurous expeditions around the world, from crossing the Arctic to sailing balsa rafts off the coast of South America. But his latest project reaches back to this early fascination with space travel: he’s building his own suborbital space suit from scratch in his efficiency apartment in downtown Portland, OR, where he works as an anthropology professor at Portland State University.
His objective is to reach 63,000 feet, the “Armstrong line” (as in Neil) that is widely considered the edge of space, where blood starts to boil and death comes quickly without proper protection. Simplicity and economy are two major considerations, Smith says, and not just because he’s doing it with spare cash in his spare time. “The goal is to have a suit as reliable and field-maintainable as my old VW,” he says.
Pressure suits are actually surprisingly low-tech. Early models dating to the 1930s were completely homemade, and even the suits the Apollo astronauts wore on the moon were sewn by seamstresses on loan from Playtex.
Commercial off-the rack space suits run into the six figures, but Smith’s goal is more modest: $1,000, start to finish. “We’re approaching that,” he says. It’s part of a recent wave of low-budget, small-scale space exploration efforts, which are using crowd-sourcing and falling tech prices to do things like launch tiny satellites into space and land robots on the moon.
Smith has been working on the project for eight years, with the help of an ever-changing team of volunteer undergraduate and graduate students collectively known as Pacific Spaceflight. Most of the work happens in his apartment, which is packed with bookcases full of textbooks and astronaut memoirs, with ice axes on the wall and whiteboards covered with scribbles. (“Sometimes the best aeroplane is no aeroplane,” one reads.)
They have tested various versions of the suit in commercial freezers, swimming pools and the Willamette River in downtown Portland. “It’s totally insane,” he says. “For a long time I didn’t tell anybody. It seemed too crazy.” But he has progressed enough that he has given a TEDx talk and been invited to share his knowledge with the folks at SpaceX as a “consultant in life support matters.”
In 2014, Smith successfully took an early version of the suit to 17,000 feet in a helicopter. To go higher, Smith is planning to fly himself—in a hot air balloon. It’s the least expensive way to go as high as he needs to with enough of a safety buffer, he says. He bought a used balloon and gondola for $5,000 and is in the process of earning his solo pilot’s license. The model he bought has been flown as high as 49,000 feet but has a “theoretical limit” of 60,000 feet, he says, with modifications like attaching extra balloons filled with helium.
Smith and his crew have started flight tests in the bleak Alvord Desert in southeast Oregon. It’s the perfect launch site: the desert floor is already at 4,000 feet, and nearby Steens Mountain is 9,000 feet high. “If we could launch from the top on a windless morning, good lord, that’s almost 10,000 free feet of altitude, no fuel burned, no oxygen breathed,” he says.
“We are really now on the verge of being able to do what we want to do,” Smith says. From here, his to-do list includes finishing the latest version of the suit, finishing his flight certification and building a lighter balloon basket that can pass FAA inspection. “It’s all day, every day,” he says. When and if he achieves his goal, he plans to put all his plans up online and available as open-source, in line with his belief that space should be open to anyone with enough guts and determination, not just monolithic federal agencies and private companies with billion-dollar backers.
If you want to follow in his footsteps, here’s a list of everything you’ll need to save for.
Smith’s suit has three main layers, plus an outer coverall. The innermost layer is essentially a set of long underwear covered with a network of flexible tubing. The tubing carries ice water to keep the inside temperature near a comfortable 70°F. But wait—isn’t space close to absolute zero, or -460°F? Yes, but it’s also a vacuum, which means there’s nothing to carry away excess body heat, like air does on the surface through conduction and convection. “Without the tubing it’s intolerable, you’ve overheated within five minutes,” Smith says. “It was one of the first things that actually started working successfully.”
The next layer solves another problem of staying alive in a vacuum: the absence of atmospheric pressure, which at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch. In space, without a suit you’d inflate to twice your normal size (no, not explode like in the movies), and your bodily fluids would start to boil. The pressure garment has been one of the most complicated parts to perfect, Smith says. Early sewed versions had lots of leaks and mobility issues.
The latest version of the pressure garment is made of bright yellow and red polyurethane-coated nylon: about 4 square yards at $18 each. The seams are heat-welded, meaning the material is melted together with a dry iron, with no glue or stitching, like on a whitewater raft or weather balloon. “It’s much more airtight,” Smith says. “The fabric will split before the seams give out.” (They search out the few remaining leaks in tricky spots like the armpits using a spray bottle of soapy water.)
To get in and out, Smith has built in a gas-tight zipper from a diving drysuit. At $300, it’s the most expensive piece of the entire suit. He has also gone with a new helmet design. Originally he used a bright orange Soviet Air Force helmet he bought from “some shady Russian guy” on eBay. This version, though, has a soft helmet that incorporates a clear plastic visor from a woodworking face shield ($60). The connection between the helmet and the suit may look familiar if you’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen: it’s the seal from a vintage pressure cooker ($60 on eBay). “I thought, how can I get a really cheap gas-tight rim?” Smith says. “This locks right on, it’s a very simple mechanism, and it can handle 15 psi.”
The soft helmet is two pounds lighter, which at current SpaceX prices—$4,000 per pound to get to Low Earth Orbit—is nothing to scoff at. And the lack of protection doesn’t bother Smith; in fact, he says, the Russian space program currently uses soft helmets. “I think they figured out years ago that either a rocket flight is perfect, in which case there’s hardly any vibration, or else it’s a total catastrophe…”
Mesh restraint garment
The third layer keeps the pressure garment from ballooning into Michelin Man proportions. Smith went with blue nylon athletic mesh, the same kind of material used to make the bags that hold soccer balls or wet dive gear.
Rubberized painters’ gloves with a calfskin layer on top are enough to protect your hands, Smith says. A hoop of wire prevents “palm bloat,” and plastic buckles connecting them to the sleeves keep the gloves from creeping off the hands when the suit is inflated.
A pair of old Sorel boots keep Smith’s feet warm and protect the foot ends of the pressure garment.
For obvious reasons, it’s important that the outermost surface of the suit is fireproof. A standard oversized military flight coverall would do the trick, but that’s not the image Smith wants to project. “The first thing people would think of is the Iraq War,” he says. So he chose to make his own out of a fireproof material called Nomex, used to make clothing and equipment used by firefighters. It costs about $7 per square yard and happens to come in lime green, which will give Smith’s suit a distinctive neon hue. That’s fine with him: “Whenever I have the option to make an aesthetic choice different from what people expect, then that’s where I’m going,” he says.
Miscellaneous parts and tools
If you’re building your own suit, you’ll need a selection of materials and fasteners like hose clamps, nylon straps, and plastic buckles. You’ll also need access to tools like a sewing machine and dry iron. Figure $50 for the parts, Smith says, and more if you need to buy your own tools.
All images (unless stated) copyright 2013-2016, collection of Cameron M Smith.
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